The Red of the Tatsuta River
Taichi first mentioned the field trip to Chihaya after one of her tournament matches. It seemed like a simple enough idea, though the principle of it was what made Chihaya so enthusiastic:
Taichi wanted to go to the Tatsuta river for a picnic.
It was a five hour trip from Tokyo to Nara by bullet train, and Chihaya really didn't like the concept of waking up super early for the day trip, but after Taichi came to her with a ticket he had already purchased, she couldn't say no. After all, not only would she be able to visit the river of her karuta card, but she'd be that much closer to Arata, who lived in Fukui, which was much closer to Nara than Tokyo!
In his spirit, she was determined to bring her karuta cards, and told everyone else about the karuta field trip. And funnily enough, regardless of the price, everyone on the team got really excited for the trip. At least, everyone but Kanade. And when it came to Kana's refusal to go, Chihaya couldn't fathom why Kana, of all people, wouldn't want to see the river of the ancient poetry she loved so much.
And then, when it came to the evening before the trip, she got e-mail after e-mail from all of her teammates with different excuses why they couldn't make the trip. It was almost like it were a conspiracy! It made no sense, regardless of the time of day they were leaving.
Well, no, Chihaya mused tiredly, a 6am bullet train leaving from Tokyo Station was no joke to wake up for, because it involved a lot of extra traveling just to get there in time, and when Chihaya found herself being forced by her alarm to wake up at 3am, she had been pretty tempted to cancel the trip, too. But then she remembered where they were going, and the adrenaline kept her blood pumping, even though she was pretty sure she was going to die a few times that morning just from being so tired.
It helped that Taichi didn't live too far away from her, because when he showed up at her place at 4:30am and found out she had fallen back asleep, that was an even bigger motivator to wake up.
With Taichi's impatience looming over her head, Chihaya lethargically finished her packing, and by the time she finally made it outside, she had to lean against Taichi for support while walking to the train station, yawning every few seconds and feeling as sluggish as a sloth.
Everything up until the train ride was a dreamy blur to her. She thought she fell asleep a few times against Taichi's shoulder, and she was sure she muttered a few things, but when she really woke up, the sun was shining high, and she realized Taichi was adjusting her to lean against the window.
She sat up straight, yawning and rubbing her eyes, "How much longer?"
He smiled to her, "About half an hour before we transfer."
Chihaya grumbled a bit, "I haven't eaten all day. And we haven't played any karuta yet."
"I brought some bentos for us to eat on the train," Taichi reached into his bag and pulled out his cell phone, which he placed beside him and a hand-wrapped lunch box, which he offered to Chihaya, "Did you remember to pack our official lunches?"
Chihaya's eyes went wide and made a small sound resembling a guilty squeak. "I… I made it last night!" She shifted her eyes, blushing a little, "But, it's still in the fridge at home…"
Taichi gave a half-laughing snort and nudged her with his elbow, "I figured you might, so I packed some lunches, too."
Chihaya's eyes brightened as she grabbed his arm, "Wow, Taichi, really? You covered for me? Am I that easy to read?" She laughed, "I'm so excited for our picnic! It's too bad the others couldn't make it."
At that, Taichi's phone buzzed, and Taichi's smile grew some distance that Chihaya could only interpret as an introspective outlook toward a great day for them. He picked up his phone to look at it.
"What time is it, anyway?" Chihaya could have just looked at her phone, but Taichi's was easier to access, so she leaned over to see.
However, all she managed to see was a pop-up text from Kana with what looked a bit like "You can do it, Prez!" before Taichi yanked his phone away with a flushed face and a stammer.
"W-what are you doing?" Taichi's voice was tight like he was nervous, but Chihaya was more confused than he was.
"Was that an e-mail from Kana?" Chihaya looked to him, not understanding Kana's words. "Did she think we might not be able to make it to Tatsuta?" She blinked, and then snorted in a teasing huff, "Is that why she didn't come on the trip? She knew she'd sleep through it!"
Taichi was too busy texting something into his phone to bother looking up, but he muttered something along the lines of "Everyone had their reasons."
Chihaya looked out the window, recognizing the outskirts of Osaka. "You know who we should have invited?"
"Arata," Chihaya smiled against the window.
Taichi looked up a moment, paused, and then occupied himself with his phone again.
"He doesn't live so far away," Chihaya pointed out.
Taichi still said nothing, his eyes on his phone as he texted.
Chihaya continued to look out the window, and wondered how often Arata may have seen this exact landscape. The thought of him warmed her heart, and once she started to think of him, she often couldn't help but laud him.
"I've been talking to him a lot lately," Chihaya lifted her head and smiled to Taichi. "I told him that we'd be going to Tatsuta, and he had talked about the possibility of taking a bus over to us, but since it was originally supposed to be a team trip, I didn't want it to be awkward, so I didn't remind him about it. But what do you think? Since it's the two of us, it'd be nice to invite him."
Taichi looked up to her again, an expression on his face that he had classically worn since they were kids, every time Chihaya brought up Arata. It wasn't the prettiest face on Taichi, but Chihaya always saw it as Taichi's weird way of showing his affection for Arata, and considering he still did it to this day, there was no doubt he would appreciate Arata coming along, too.
But now it was a little too last-minute to make any special plans, and she didn't want to remind Arata about her trip in case he'd be upset he couldn't make it to see them, so Chihaya didn't really want to push it. She was happy enough that they were going to see the real legendary Tatsuta river together and they were going to play karuta. Today was a day she was going to remember forever.
She looked up to Taichi sitting beside her, and he seemed to be staring off to nowhere in particular. She was going to open her mouth, but then the loudspeaker started and informed them of their approach to Osaka Station, and suddenly something clicked in her head. All of her thoughts vanished as she remembered that a Daddy Bear store had opened in Osaka Station next to the Pakimón Center on the top floor of the station mall, and she had to go.
Chihaya's hand sprung out and gave a death-grip to Taichi's arm.
"What is our layover time?!" Chihaya's eyes were on fire.
"Not long, why?" Taichi frowned to her.
Her eyes flared.
… And then, before they knew it, Taichi was the one carrying a bag of Chihaya's new Daddy Bear merchandise to the connecting train while sighing in exasperation, and Chihaya was holding out a brand-new re-designed Snowmaru shirt, swearing that this is what it will take to become the next Queen.
When they finally reached Nara, Taichi brought out his phone to GPS locate the Tatsuta river. He then began to Google search for more information about it. As they walked in the general direction of the river, Taichi looked up to Chihaya and mentioned something about them seeing the prettiest part of it, but it would involve a hike. Considering it was still early mid-day, Chihaya was up for it, and they walked together toward their destination.
When they finally reached the river by the road, Chihaya's excitement erupted ten-fold. There it was, finally! It was in front of her eyes, the beautiful Tatsuta river! Though, really, it was more beautiful in poetry than in real life, but the principle is what counted, and Chihaya quickly grabbed Taichi's arm to enthusiastically drag him along the river bed.
"This is it!" Chihaya kept chanting, and then, "I wonder how many of the hundred poets had come here!"
Her enthusiasm seemed to reflect itself on Taichi, who had been biting his lip in anticipation, with golden eyes that were as bright as the sun, yet he was awkwardly silent considering how excited Chihaya was. When Chihaya started to notice that Taichi spent more time looking at her than the surroundings, she worried slightly that he may have been meaning to ask her to take a break. It quickly occurred to her, after that thought, that they should set up their picnic, since she was already getting hungry again.
"Hey Taichi," Chihaya smiled to him, taking his arm and squeezing, "Do you want to have lunch?"
There was a bit of relief in his eyes, and he smiled faintly to her, "Sure."
There was no telling what was running through Taichi's mind, but Chihaya was sure that he was just too overwhelmed by the surroundings to speak. Chihaya could think of no other explanation as to why he was so awkwardly silent today, especially since they were on a field trip that had been his surprise for her.
"Oh!" Chihaya also had a thought, "I think here would be a great spot for a picnic," and she pointed to an area that seemed flat and grassy among the trees. Taichi was silently agreeable, and unpacked a blanket which he laid on the grass.
After they sat down on the blanket by the river, Taichi had paused for a moment, looking at Chihaya. There was a gale that brushed through Taichi's hair, and mid-autumn leaves seemed to dance into the river. Chihaya's eyes fell to the leaves floating downstream, and then returned to Taichi's gaze. Chihaya watched him, confused as he looked like he was going to say something, but the silence was unusual for him.
Suddenly growing concerned, she was about to ask him what was on his mind, but the moment she opened her mouth, her stomach suddenly roared, and all the air in her stomach came out of her throat in a loud and embarrassing belch.
Taichi's eyes went wide and Chihaya quickly clasped her hands over her mouth with a squeak. Both of them flushed slightly, and Taichi's uncomfortable silence was broken as he burst into laughter.
Chihaya's cheeks flared pink as she bit her lip, "It's not funny! I'm so hungry, my stomach's turning into air!"
Still snickering, Taichi snorted, "Yeah, yeah," and started digging into the picnic bag. He pulled out two pairs of chopsticks and two bottles of unsweetened green tea that he had purchased earlier at a vending machine. Though, as he brought out each bento box, his movements started to slow, and Chihaya was far too famished to wait for him to finish unpacking. By the time any realization of Taichi's behavior had struck her, she had already ripped off the cover of her bento box and had begun to dig into the salmon onigiri lunch that Taichi had made for them.
As Chihaya swooned over the food, Taichi was awkwardly quiet, with his eyes down, shaded by his hair. After a moment, he looked up to Chihaya, and then to the river. Meanwhile, Chihaya noted, Taichi's lunch box still remained untouched.
The awkward change in his behavior once again irked Chihaya, who couldn't figure him out at all. What was with all of this silence all of a sudden? Wasn't he having a good time with her? What could possibly be on his mind?
And then the thought struck Chihaya about what Taichi might want to do, and especially what Kana would wished him luck in, so as she set down her lunch box, she grinned from cheek to cheek while waving her chopsticks with a teasingly knowing smile, "Hey Taichi, wanna play a game of karuta?"
He looked to her, a confused look in his eyes until they softened and he gave her a slight smile. He then looked down to his lunch box, his fingers lightly brushing the top as his hair hid his eyes and a slight red tinting his cheeks, "… No."
Chihaya blinked, her eyes wide. What? No karuta? He must have been joking. Perhaps he had meant after lunch…
"Chihaya…" Taichi cleared his throat and gathered his chopsticks, but stopped to look at them, "The reason I brought you here…"
There was silence as Chihaya watched him expectantly.
"I brought you here because…" Taichi seemed to be fighting some kind of internal battle, and Chihaya found herself wondering what could possibly leave him so tongue-tied.
Taichi started again, though, looking at her eyes, his cheeks rosy, likely with the tinge of cold by the river, "I brought you here because there's something important I want to tell you."
Chihaya blinked, still not knowing what to expect. What could be so interesting that it needed an introduction for it?
"But first," Taichi looked to Chihaya's cell phone by her knees, his voice taking a serious tone, "Can you turn off your phone?"
Chihaya blinked at the odd request that seemed to come from nowhere. "My phone?" Chihaya blinked again, looking to her cell phone, which had sat practically unused the whole day so far, "Why?"
"I've tried to talk to you about this before, but you always seem to get distracted, and I'd rather your phone be off for this…"
"I didn't realize there was anything that would need me to, Oh!" Chihaya's phone started buzzing in her hand, and for a split second, she wondered if this particular moment counted as "phone-off" time, but when she saw who it was from, she could not say no to this call. "It's Arata!" Chihaya looked up to see Taichi with his classic Arata-affection face, and smiled, "Give me just a minute, and I'll turn it off! Hold on!"
Chihaya stood, answering her phone to the sweetest voice. "Arata! Yes, yes, no, hold on," and she walked into the woods by the river, not going very far, but far enough that Taichi couldn't hear their conversation.
The disgruntled look on Taichi's face never faltered as he picked up his own phone, reviewing the messages he had received all day from Kana, showing her support. It was at times like this when he had to remember patience. It would all be over soon.
That "soon," however, turned into a much longer time period, as Chihaya seemed to forget the time, and continued to be more and more enthusiastic on the phone. Taichi took the time to finally eat his lunch, though after only a few bites, Taichi put it down due to his sudden lack of appetite.
Just when Taichi was about fed up with waiting, Chihaya let out a high pitched sound he had never heard her make before, and in a panic for her, Taichi sprung up, ready to run to her, but upon a moment's glance, he saw her parading around like a madwoman, and sat back down with a sigh, pulling his phone out again to look at the screen.
It was only a minute later when Chihaya hung up her phone and hurried back with the most elated look on her face he had ever seen. Taichi glanced up as Chihaya excitedly sat back down on the blanket, and for a moment, he was in awe, once again momentarily swept away by the passion in her eyes. It would have been the most beautiful she had ever looked, except Taichi knew that this was the result of her talking to Arata, and that realization brought him back to a frustrated state.
But to Chihaya, it she was feeling the most wonderful emotions in the world. She couldn't contain her excitement, and she didn't know how to possibly break the news to him any way other than directly, so she just sat in front of her lunch bouncing on her legs with boundless energy, hoping Taichi would ask what was up with her.
And it was obvious that he noticed, since his eyes were on her as she bounced in excitement while seated. But why wasn't he asking yet? Ask, ask ask! Chihaya was ready to explode.
Taichi made no sound, and no face, until after a long pregnant pause, he finally sighed heavily, slouched, and looked off at nothing as he droned, "What did he say?"
There it was! The magic words of Chihaya's dream come true! She put her hands together, but couldn't contain her energy, so she brought them to her face, but was squeezing too hard, so she reached over and grabbed Taichi's arm and shook it hard as she beamed, "Arata asked me out!"
Taichi had no words.
Chihaya's excited words became muffled background noise as she likely told him all about her conversation. Taichi heard none of it, though. He pulled his hand away and looked off sullenly, seeing only the red that was the Tatsuta river.
It was only minutes after school got out, and Taichi came early to the clubhouse with his personal karuta cards. He stopped, realizing Kana was already there, and had taken out a broom to sweep. He had not talked to her since the day before, and the minute she looked up and saw him, she grew incredibly excited and dropped the broom, rushing to him, with fire in her eyes.
"So tell me how it went! Was it romantic? What did she say? How did it go?"
Taichi looked to her with an empty gaze, and the defeat in his eyes was raw. Kana's breath hitched, and a feeling of dread weighed down her stomach. He didn't need to say anything for her to know of his disappointment. "What happened? What went wrong? How did it go wrong?"
Taichi looked to the side, the spirit gone from his voice as he droned out, "Arata."
He didn't need to say more. Kana felt his pain and her jaw tightened as she tried to hold back sudden tears that she wanted to cry for him.
Taichi put his karuta cards on the table, looking to them for a moment before his eyes unfocused and his voice went distant. "I can't be president anymore." He turned to Kana and with a dejected smile, and said simply, "Take care of her."
Kana tried to follow him, to ask what happened, but then saw Nishida and Tsukuba heading to the clubhouse together, and stopped, watching Taichi walk off, tears in her eyes.
As Nishida entered the room, he saw the cards on the table and raised his eyebrows, remarking, "Wow, those are pretty high quality for club practice. Where did they come from?"
Kana wiped a tear before turning with a forced smile, politely replying, "President donated them."
"Oh? Mashima is already here?" Nishida looked around curiously.
Kanade looked out to where Taichi had walked off, and then bit her lip, turning to the boys, then looking down, "I don't think he'll be coming anymore."
"Ehhh?" Nishida and Tsukuba both looked equally perplexed by the news. Nishida frowned in earnest, "What? Why?"
Kana opened her mouth to respond, but was was cut off by a loud "AFTERNOOOON!" as Chihaya bounded into the clubhouse with all-smiles. "Guess what I have!"
They all looked to her with raised eyebrows.
"A boyfriend!" Chihaya held up her arms in victory.
Kana, Nishida and Tsukuba looked to her with mixed expressions, mostly anticipating what she would say next, though none of them appeared to be at all excited or surprised.
The silence was almost tangible, and Chihaya noticed this as she awkwardly lowered her hands. She looked among them all with blinking eyes, and then stuck her bottom lip forward on a pout, "Aren't you going to ask who?"
Nishida looked to the Taichi's cards on the table and then to Chihaya, confusion written on his face, but before he could ask, the silence was broken as Sumire and Komano entered, and Chihaya turned on her heel, her excitement back and rearing.
"Desktomu! Sumire!" Chihaya beamed, "Who wants to challenge me to a match first? I have to practice so I can beat my boyfriend!"
Sumire froze, and her eyes went wide as she realized her worst nightmare. Komano, however, was unfazed as he slightly raised his eyebrows and adjusted his glasses, "Oh, so he finally did it?"
"Yes!" Chihaya clutched at her chest, her eyes sparkling, "Arata finally asked me out!"
At that moment, it was like a cold breeze went through the room. Silence.
The dejected pout on Sumire's face fell into what could be conceived as shock. Komano's eyebrows stayed raised as his jaw tightened. Nishida uncomfortably shifted and looked away. Tsukuba's hands clenched a little as he remained silent. Kana just continued to watch her, sadness displaying on her face.
A cold breeze seemed to blow by again, and Chihaya felt her stomach fall a little bit, worried about their reactions. "What? What's wrong?"
That seemed to snap them out of whatever thought had distracted them, and they went on with their business, starting to set up their karuta decks, though the silence was still in the room and Chihaya didn't like it one bit. "Why isn't anyone saying anything? What did I do?" Then, "Why isn't anyone happy for me?"
Kana snapped out of her stupor, shaking her head and put on her best and happiest face for Chihaya. She now knew what it was like for Taichi all these years, to pretend to be happy for her, when deep down, she was so sad at the mention of Arata. She took Chihaya's hand in hers, "We are happy for you, Chihaya. Congratulations."
The cold wind blew again, and Chihaya looked behind her to find one of the windows was slightly open. She walked to close it, and noticed the karuta cards on the table. "Oh! Taichi's cards! He's here too? Where did he go?"
"He donated them," Nishida mechanically stated as he organized his cards against Sumire.
"He gave up his cards?" Chihaya's eyes went wide. "That… that was so nice of him!"
"Not like he's going to be using them again," Komano wiped his nose and snorted, all set up, but waiting for an opponent.
"What? What do you mean?" Chihaya blinked.
Nobody said anything.
"What did Komano mean by that?" Chihaya looked to Kana, who looked away, averting eye contact.
Komano exasperatingly sighed, "Is anyone going to play me, or should I just go home and study?!"
Chihaya suddenly felt something was very wrong. Everyone's negative reactions, their lack of enthusiasm, avoiding eye contact, and not even communicating why… Chihaya realized that all of them knew something. And Taichi's cards lying on the table, without anyone questioning why…. "What's going on?!" Chihaya shouted, feeling panic at the pit of her stomach, "What are you guys not telling me?!"
Kana touched Chihaya's arm, "You don't need to yell…"
Chihaya tore her arm away, for some reason, tears coming to her eyes in dread of what they had to say, but not knowing what was wrong, "What are you guys not telling me?!"
Kana soothed, "Chihaya…"
"No!" Chihaya's gut was wrenching, "You know something, don't you Kana?! You know! Talk to me! What did I do?! How can I make this better?! What should I do?! Why is everyone so upset with me?!"
Kana took Chihaya's arm again, her voice soothing, "Chihaya, please… Come outside for a minute…"
Chihaya wiped her eyes with her hand and tried to stifle a sniffle, sliding on her shoes, and then following Kana outside. Kana closed the door, and stood still a moment, looking to the door and then looking down before looking to Chihaya. Then, she bit her lip and said "Not here…" and then took Chihaya's arm again and walked a distance away from the clubhouse into a grove of trees.
"Kana, talk to me. Please, I'm no good at reading people!" Chihaya pressed, tears threatening to well at her eyes again in frustration. "Tell me, what's going on? Where's Taichi?"
Kana was silent a moment, looking down as if to find the proper words, and then looked to Chihaya, her eyes welling with tears, but her voice was filled with great urgency as her hands balled to fists and she stood her ground, "Taichi quit karuta!"
The wind picked up again as Chihaya stared in shock to Kana. "What?"
"He… He won't be coming anymore."
"That's…" Chihaya's voice felt far away as her head spun and her ears rung. "He…"
Chihaya thought back to the time when Taichi tried to get out of karuta by joining the soccer team, and suddenly her stomach eased because she knew that Taichi's decision wasn't permanent.
Chihaya's eyes softened as she smiled to Kana reassuringly, "Don't worry, he'll be back."
Kana said nothing as she failed to be moved by Chihaya's promise. Instead, she looked down to her feet, bringing her hands together and pressed her index fingers against each other as if summoning the willpower to say something important.
"Chihaya…" She started, before looking up again, "You… You should talk to Taichi…"
"Oh don't worry, I will!" Chihaya grinned to Kana and put a hand on her shoulder, "If this is what all this is about, I'll get Taichi back in no time!"
"You don't understand," Kana's voice became slightly desperate, "You need to talk to him."
Chihaya stopped and looked at her, having never heard such urgency from Kana before.
"You… You should go, now." Kana's fists remained clenched as her voice heightened. "Talk to him! Go find him and talk to him! If you ever want him back, then find him, Chihaya, and listen to what he has to say!"
There it was again – mention of Taichi wanting to tell her something.
Taichi never told her what he had wanted to say in Tatsuta, and every time she brought it up on the train ride back, Taichi had changed the subject. Eventually he had grown so silent and boring that she had occupied herself by e-mailing Arata back and forth for the whole train ride. Because she had been so involved in her conversation, she never really noticed Taichi's silence, until they had arrived at Tokyo Station to transfer trains, and by that time, she had forgotten all about what Taichi had wanted to say. He had been silent the rest of their local train ride home, too, so of course it had slipped her mind.
But now, Chihaya realized that Kana knew exactly what Taichi had wanted to tell her, and if Kana was telling Chihaya to skip out on karuta club, of all things, then this certainly was extremely important.
"I-" Chihaya swallowed, her skin feeling clammy from anxiety all of a sudden. "I'll go now!" She turned on her heel to run to the clubhouse.
"Go!" Kana shouted after her.
Chihaya swung the club door open with a bang, disrupting the practice match, and quickly grabbed her bag and Taichi's karuta cards, "I have to go! Practice hard and get lots of cards!" She shut the door before anyone could respond.
While running, Chihaya painstakingly typed a phone e-mail to Taichi asking where he was. She didn't really care to wait for a response, so she just took the most direct route to finding him – going to his house. If he wasn't there now, then he'd surely be back later, and she'd just occupy herself with his karuta cards until he got there.
It was the longest train ride she'd ever had. Her heart was racing the whole time and she kept sending e-mail after e-mail to Taichi's phone, with no response. With every passing e-mail, the anxiety continued to grow on her. He never was so silent with her before. Something was terribly wrong, and everyone else seemed to know what was going on, except for her.
She didn't know what to do, or who to talk to, so she started e-mailing the one person who could comfort her the most right now. She typed Arata's phone e-mail and desperately wrote that something was wrong, and she needed to talk to him.
She waited for a response, but didn't get any from him, either. What horrible, rotten luck she was having. Her stress was running adrenaline through her whole body, and she was trembling uncontrollably at this point. She mentally beat herself, realizing that Arata was likely in a practice karuta match. They both practiced karuta after school, and of course he was busy. After all, she was the one who was skipping out on karuta club.
While she had her phone out, she occupied herself by looking through her pictures, though her eyes were unfocused as she was looking beyond her phone, and zoning out in her worry.
She almost missed her stop, snapping out of it only in time to realize the doors were closing, and shouted bloody murder before pressing the "Emergency" button to force the doors open again. Everyone on the train raised their eyes to her in shock, though she just shouted "Sorry!" and jumped off, taking off through the train station at a run.
Nothing mattered. Nothing mattered except finding out what was wrong. This awful feeling in her gut was making her nauseous, and worried her. She kept telling herself she could keep this all under control if she just breathed and approached Taichi calmly, but she couldn't help but see that desperate look in Kana's eyes, and the cool stares of her team members who were holding back and guarding very important words.
She never even realized how fast and hard she was running until she made it to Taichi's block. It was only after she stopped to breathe did the exhaustion hit her like a train, just as equally due to her mental strain, but her adrenaline continued to propel her forward.
By the time she got to Taichi's house, she looked a mess, and was sweaty and flustered. She had practiced twenty different things to say to him as ice breakers, though as she stood in front of his door, she had forgotten all of them. She didn't understand why she was feeling this nervous. After all, this was Taichi. Regardless of him feeling upset about something, she was still the person who knew him the best of everyone, right? He and she and Arata were Team Chihayafuru, and that would carry on with them throughout all their lives. There was no way that either of them could truly give up karuta, because karuta was their blood and soul.
That reassuring thought helped her regain her confidence, and holding Taichi's cards in her left hand, she rang his doorbell and waited with baited breath.
Just then, her phone started to ring. Flustered, hoping it was either Taichi or Arata, she grabbed at the phone in her pocket and took it out to view. It was Arata, and seeing his name on her phone gave her another boost of confidence. Of course Arata would call just then. He had a wonderful way of calling when she was alone with Taichi. When he did, it was just like they were an old team again, just the three of them together.
She picked up the phone and quickly turned away from the door, "Arata! I have to call you back."
The voice on the other end seemed concerned, "What's wrong, Chihaya?"
"I'm sorry, I have to-!" Chihaya looked up as the door opened, and Taichi was standing in the doorway, looking nonplussed. "I'll call you back."
Chihaya hung up the phone and quickly put it away, watching Taichi's face and gauging Taichi's expression the whole time. She opened her mouth to say something, but then shut her eyes, bowed slightly, and shoved Taichi's cards in his face, "Your cards!"
Taichi said nothing, making no move to take them. His body was tense, and his skin seemed to clam up a bit, but he stood before her, just watching.
The cold breeze happened again. Chihaya didn't know whether it was real or just her imagination, but as she looked up to his eyes, she saw a chilled look that she had never seen from him before, and it verified all of her fears.
Taichi was upset. He was extremely upset, and it was something that she did.
Lowering his cards, Chihaya could feel the adrenaline forcing tears to her eyes. "How…" she faltered, realizing her voice had lost some of its control, "How do I make things better?"
She didn't even know what was wrong to begin with, but she didn't care as long as she could fix things. She didn't like this at all, this cold chill while standing before Taichi. But he was her best friend. He'd know how to make things right. She knew she was a karuta idiot, but he always had the answers for her, so she could always rely on him.
Taichi just watched her, visibly holding back whatever he had to say. And his eyes softened only ever so much, and they looked upon her with a restrained sadness that she had just seen before in the karuta clubhouse.
"Please…" Chihaya breathed, "Tell me what's wrong! Tell me what I did!"
Taichi just watched.
"Everyone knows what's wrong, but me! I showed up to club, and they said you were gone and never coming back, and they believed it! What do they know that I don't know!? Why does everyone know what's wrong except for me!" Chihaya was yelling now, tears freely flowing, "You usually tell me everything, Taichi! Why aren't you talking to me?!"
Taichi gripped the door frame with his right hand, "Some things are not so easily said."
"But you were going to tell me, right?" Chihaya swallowed, looking to his eyes desperately, "At the river… you were going to tell me something before Arata called, but you never told me."
Taichi's jaw tensed, and he looked away. He took a breath, and it gave Chihaya hope that he would speak, so she waited for his words, holding her breath and feeling anxious and weak.
"I…" Taichi's eyes were somewhere beyond the distance, "I can't be your friend anymore."
A weight dragged Chihaya into deep waters, and she felt like she was drowning. She couldn't even muster up breath to form words. The shock of hearing those words, and the pain of them left her speechless, and only her eyes could convey the despair she felt.
Taichi wasn't looking, continuing to look off to the distance, "And I quit karuta club."
If she hadn't already been hit by a piano to the gut, those words would have done her in. But instead, she just watched, sickened as her stomach lurched in a pain she had never felt before. Her head ached, and her ears rung. She felt she was dying. Surely, she was dying.
"Please…" she whispered, unable to control her voice, as her lungs didn't seem to work right, "At least… tell me what I did…" Her tears flowed and her nose was running, "Please… at least let me know what I did. I-" She sniffed, wiping her nose, "I'm not good at reading people. If you don't tell me, I'll never know. I'll never get better. I'll never be able to make it up to you!"
At her last words, she felt a sense of purpose coming back, "I want to make it up to you! Let me know how I can fix this! What can I do to make this better?! Please tell me, how can I fix us!"
Taichi looked at her for a long time as she panted, winded by her despair, and trying to catch her own breath. "Chihaya…" He looked to her, with hard but saddened eyes. "I'm afraid the answer to that isn't going to make you any happier."
"What do you mean?" Chihaya looked hard to his eyes, "What were you going to tell me back then?"
His eyes looked distant again as he broke eye contact and looked to the side, "It doesn't matter now."
"Taichi!" Chihaya started, refusing to accept that as an answer, but Taichi cut her off.
"Go home, Chihaya. Don't come back. We're not friends anymore."
"Taichi!" Chihaya said desperately, trying to put her hand to his door, but it was no use. Taichi closed the door, and locked it.
"Taichi!" Chihaya banged on the door, "Taichi! You can't do this! Taichi, open up!" She banged and she banged, and she continued to bang.
A window opened on the second floor and an angry voice shouted, "Would you QUIT IT?!" Taichi's sister called out from the upper window. It brought Chihaya out of her feverish tantrum enough to realize that if she banged any more, she'd likely end up facing Taichi's mother.
With tears in her eyes, Chihaya sniffed and phone e-mailed Taichi the message, "I'm sorry!" She waited a minute, hopeful for a reply, but never received one. She realized she still had no idea what she did, and her situation was even worse than ever. Komano might have been right…. What if Taichi really left karuta club for good?
She looked a Taichi's cards in her hand and gingerly put them into her backpack. She found herself at a loss of direction. She knew where her home was, but if she went home, then it meant she'd given up on Taichi, but if she stayed here, she couldn't talk to Taichi, either. Absolutely nowhere she went would lead to Taichi being her friend again, and the realization of this was crushing. The look in his eyes when he emotionlessly regarded her, like some trivial karuta opponent…. It was cold, and hurtful… and she didn't know if she could handle that look again.
She had hurt him. There was no denying that he had been hurt. Why else would he treat her that way? But she wracked her thoughts, and every thought came up dry. She was such an idiot. At this rate, she would never figure it out.
She started to walk, absently walking her routine path home as she typed Kana's phone e-mail address, and wrote, "Taichi won't talk to me. What do I do?"
Her heart raced as she stared at her phone screen, waiting. Waiting.
It seemed like an eternity, though it probably was only a couple minutes, before Chihaya received a poetically simple, but beautiful reply from Kana: "Love Wataya-san."
Chihaya's heart skipped a beat at Kana's words.
Yes. Yes, that was it. Arata made everything better. Chihaya's heart melted a bit when she thought of him, and his concern for her. She had never called him back, and he was probably worried sick about her after her desperate e-mail to him and especially after cutting off his call.
The emotion associated with him always plunged her back into the deep end. Even though she felt some relief, she still found tears threatening to take her again, and didn't quite know if they were carried over from before, or from the anticipation of talking to him. She knew she'd have to relive all of her pain while telling him her story, and she was still exhausted from it. And what was worse - absolutely nothing had actually gotten any better yet. She could only hope Arata could offer her some words of comfort during a terrible time in her life that she couldn't control.
She dialed Arata's e-mail address to prepare a message for him, but felt it would be better if she could just lie in her bed for a while instead of walking while talking to him… She needed all the comfort she could get at this point, because she just felt like a wreck. So, after checking for any messages from Taichi, she put her phone away and numbly continued her walk home, feeling confused emotions she hadn't ever really felt before, and not quite knowing how to handle them.
When she got home, she realized she was the only one in the house, and remembered her sister had a photo shoot, which her parents were also likely attending, and they wouldn't be back for another few hours. In a way, it made her feel better that her family wouldn't see her so down in the dumps and ask questions she literally couldn't answer because even she didn't have the answers to them. On the other hand, the silence in the house only exacerbated her loneliness, and she found herself craving the company of someone who unconditionally cared for her.
She removed her shoes, uncharacteristically placing them extra carefully and neatly by the door. She then picked up her bag and her phone, and walked to her room, not even bothering with the lights. Light wouldn't make her feel any better right now. There was only one person who could make her feel any semblance of happiness, and she didn't quite know how even he could help her.
Regardless, she lay in her bed and looked at Arata's number. Arata, her boyfriend. The clouds of sadness shifted aside as her heart warmed a bit, and her thumb pressed the "Call" button.
The phone barely had any chance to ring before it was immediately picked up by a frantic voice, "Chihaya!"
The urgency in his voice suddenly brought back all of the despair Chihaya had been feeling, and any calmness and solidarity was shoved aside by Arata's classic karuta sweep.
"A-Arata!" Chihaya's eyes burned as her voice hitched. "Arata, it's terrible!"
"What happened?! What's wrong?"
"It's… It's Taichi!" Chihaya's voice broke as her eyes grew watery again. "He's angry with me!"
"Taichi?" Arata sounded confused for a moment, "This is about Taichi?"
"He isn't talking to me!" Chihaya squeezed her eyes and yelled into the phone, "And he won't tell me what I did!"
"And what's worse – he quit karuta! He left his karuta cards at the clubhouse and now everyone on my team is mad at me, too, and I don't know why!"
"Slow down, Chihaya. You had me worried, thinking this was an emergency."
"It IS!" Chihaya's voice was desperate, despite her efforts to lie down. "They all know something they aren't telling me, and Taichi told me he doesn't want to be friends with me anymore!"
"Chihaya, calm down. Getting frantic over this isn't going to help you strategize. Remember to breathe."
Chihaya took a breath, hitched it, and exhaled. She tried again, closing her eyes, but her racing heart could not be slowed. Still, it was a comfort hearing Arata's voice, and it made all the difference in the world to her.
Arata let her breathe a few more times before he asked, "Start over. What happened?"
"I don't know," Chihaya lamented, her jaw trembling. "I was on a field trip with Taichi. We woke up super early and got on a shinkansen to Nara, and we went to the Tatsuta river for a picnic. The whole team was supposed to come, but then they all cancelled at the last minute for some reason, and me n' Taichi traveled over five hours on the train, and things were going so great on the way up, but he wouldn't talk to me for the entire way back."
"Slow down. That doesn't make much sense. What happened on the trip?"
Chihaya sniffled, "I don't know. Taichi was supposed to tell me something, or he said he wanted to, but then he never told me because he didn't talk to me for the rest of the trip."
"You've said this already, but you haven't answered what happened."
"Nothing! Nothing happened!"
"Okay, then…" Arata thought for a moment, "Do you remember the last thing Taichi said before he got upset with you?"
Chihaya sniffed and thought for a moment, "He told me to turn off my phone. He said something about how he always tries to tell me something, but then I get distracted, and it's funny because that's the moment you called me, so I wanted to talk to you before I had to turn my phone off." She smiled wistfully and sadly, sitting up on her bed, "That's when you asked me out, remember?"
Arata went silent.
Chihaya waited for a response, some kind of acknowledgement. "You remember, don't you? You remember asking me out? You were on the phone with me," she sniffled.
There was only breathing on the other line. His silence began to make Chihaya nervous. She suddenly started fearing that Arata might be growing upset with her like Taichi, "What? What is it?"
The hesitation from Arata's end made the weight in Chihaya's gut pull at her again, "What is it? Are you mad at me, too? What did I do! Please tell me what I did!" She paused, but got no response, and then continued, "You're doing the same thing everyone else is doing to me right now, and I don't understand why!"
Arata was still silent, and Chihaya couldn't handle it anymore. She sat up, desperation written into her voice, "What do you know that I don't know?!"
"Chihaya…" Arata's voice was solemn on the other end. There was a pause, then a breath, then another pause, "… I think we should break up."
Chihaya's eyes widened as her heart stopped for a moment and her body felt faint. She forgot how to breathe. She forgot how to live. What was going on? What was this feeling? Was she falling? Was she drowning? Where was her air?
This wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening. Her Arata… Her Arata didn't want her anymore, and she still didn't know what she did. Her life was ending. Her dream was ending. Everything she ever wanted was gone. Everyone she wanted to be with was leaving her.
"They… They'll come around!" Chihaya's voice was choked and strained. "My friends will accept us. They know how I feel about you, and how you inspire me! You're my rock, Arata! You're my dream!" Her jaw trembled as she grasped her phone with both hands, bending forward, her eyes distantly staring beyond the floor in the darkness, "I love you…"
The words rang in her own ears.
There was a silence on his end, which may have had a hitch in it, like he were holding back some kind of emotion.
When Arata spoke, he was as calm as he ever was during the toughest of karuta matches, "But you also love Taichi."
The words were a blow that took her completely by surprise. She found herself immediately flustered, eyes wide, "W-what? I've never thought about him that way!"
"You have, but you just don't know what you're feeling."
At his words, Chihaya opened her mouth to protest, but Arata continued to speak, "If you didn't love him, there's no way you'd be this upset about losing him."
Chihaya closed her mouth, her jaw locked tight. The hand holding her phone was trembling. She desperately wanted to protest and prove Arata wrong, but she didn't know anymore how she felt. All she knew was that the feeling of losing Taichi was the worst feeling she'd ever had in her entire life. Even if Arata weren't correct about her feelings… what else was it that she was feeling? Why did she hurt so much? Why didn't she understand what was going on?
"I've always been a dream to you, Chihaya." Arata's voice pulled her from her thoughts, and she swallowed as she listened. "But, Taichi… Taichi is your real life."
Chihaya swallowed, wanting to say something, but not knowing what to say, and so she let Arata continue.
"I never thought of what it would mean to your friends." Arata then paused, thought a moment, and then after a careful deliberation of words, he slowly continued, "For so long, all I could see before me was the Chihaya card," Arata reflected, "but I can't win with just one card. I need to take all of the cards, or I can't ever win."
Chihaya's eyes widened. Arata was suddenly doing something that only he could do. He was speaking the language of karuta, and finally words started to make sense to her. Her eyes watered as she realized what Arata was saying.
"At this rate, there is one card I will never be able to take, and that's Taichi's." Arata paused again, and then continued, "I don't want to date you without Taichi's blessing… and I know how distraught you are about losing Taichi."
Chihaya's breath hitched as a flashback of earlier events made her feel ill again. She closed her wet eyes and her voice trembled as she spoke, "He hates me…"
"No, Chihaya. It's not too late to get Taichi back. But if you don't act now, his feelings might harden, and it might become too late."
"W-what?" Chihaya's eyes shot open as her voice became pleading.
"Do you want Taichi back?"
"YES!" Chihaya screamed into the phone, grabbing it with both hands, heaving as her heart raced. "I want him back! I want him to be my best friend again!" She cried, "I want to play karuta with him again!"
"I can get Taichi back for you, but if you want to fix things with Taichi, you have to follow my instructions down to the last word."
Chihaya nodded furiously, forgetting Arata couldn't see her.
"Not a single variation," Arata stressed.
"Not a single variation!" Chihaya echoed.
"I mean it. Down to the last word. You have to do exactly as I say."
"Down to the last word!" Chihaya's voice broke as she sniffled, "But are you sure this will work?"
"Chihaya…" Arata exhaled, and then continued, his voice indicative of his sadness, but also reflecting a determined goal of his. "This will work. And it will mean that you and I can only ever be just friends."
"W-why?" Chihaya stammered.
"Because it means that I'm giving you my blessing."
Chihaya's eyes widened, swallowing, and then it suddenly struck her – the gravity of Arata's words. She realized that this sounded a lot like she was being forced to make a choice. But how was she supposed to choose? She was going to lose Arata… her dream. But if she didn't act now, she'd lose Taichi, her best friend in the whole world.
Chihaya's eyes welled up with tears as it suddenly dawned on her what choice she had to make. She had to let Arata go.
Her chest heaved, and she let out a sorrowful wail from the bottom of her soul, and continued like an agonizing cry as her grief flooded her eyes and streaked her face.
"Chihaya, listen to me. Are you listening?"
Chihaya continued to moan with tears, her eyes swollen and aching as she nodded to Arata, once again forgetting he couldn't see her.
"You're not losing me."
Chihaya sniffled, wiping her eyes and nose with a damp hand.
"I f-feel l-like I am," Chihaya barely managed, her breath choked and uncontrolled.
"This is the best solution, Chihaya. You can have both of us this way. But you need to get Taichi back, if you really want to keep him. It's important."
Chihaya choked back a response, her eyes leaking again.
"How much do you want him back?"
"I'd do anything!" Chihaya shouted into the phone, grabbing it with both hands, "I'd do anything in the world!"
"Alright," Arata breathed and paused. The moment lingered in silence, before Arata slowly continued, "If you want Taichi back, you must do exactly as I say. You must go to his house, you must ring his doorbell, and you must not go away until you see him. That means confronting his mother, his sister, his father, or anyone else who may get in the way. You must persist, Chihaya. You must see him."
Chihaya nodded furiously while sniffing, a burst of confidence growing within her. This was something she could definitely do! If there was ever someone who was persistent and would never back down, she was the girl for it!
"Got it!" She assured. "I go to his house and SEIGE it" She thrust a fist in the air, "until Taichi comes out!"
"And when you see him, you must say these exact words. And I mean, these exact words."
Chihaya listened intently.
"You must say the words, 'I broke up with Arata,' and then watch his face. When you're ready, your next words…"
Arata's voice trailed off, and there was a lasting silence. Chihaya waited at the edge of her seat.
Finally, Arata continued, "Your next words… will be 'I love you'."
Chihaya's eyes shot wide. It suddenly felt like everything got filtered through a fish-eye lense. Chihaya's world collapsed in on her. Her vision went white for a moment and her ears rang.
"You heard me. 'I broke up with Arata,' and then watch his face, and then tell him, 'I love you'. And I don't want you to call me until long after you've done that."
Her heart was racing. Was Arata for real? What was going on? Why was Arata telling her to do this?
"But... But…" Chihaya swallowed thickly, her throat suddenly dry.
"And the most important detail of all, do NOT ever tell him that I was the one who broke up with you. You take your story to the grave."
That detail, Chihaya didn't understand. "W… why would it make a difference who broke up with who?"
"It will, to him."
"But I don't want to lie to him!" Chihaya desperately tried to find some reason in all this insanity, but couldn't.
Arata's voice was stern. "It's not a lie. It's an inevitability. You just don't know it, yet, and unless you act upon it now, you may never get the chance."
Chihaya swallowed, "Why… are you giving me up?"
Arata paused, a bemused tone in his otherwise sad voice, and said in almost a whisper, "… Because I love you."
The logic would never make sense to Chihaya. There was something going on that she couldn't grasp, but everyone else was able to see. She opened her mouth to say something in response, but she felt like the wind was sucked out from her. She could only just cry silently as Arata breathed over the phone.
"Will we be friends forever?" Chihaya chokingly managed.
"Yes," Arata's gentle smile could be heard over the phone, "This way, we can be friends forever."
Chihaya brought her free hand to her heart and clutched her shirt. She knew she would always love Arata. He was her friend, her rival, her dream, her goal, and her confidant. And when it came to getting Taichi back, she trusted Arata's words of advice.
"I'm going to go," Chihaya said, "And I'm going to do exactly as you say."
"Go," Arata encouraged.
Chihaya hung up, and looked up to her backpack in the shadows. Wiping her face with her hand, she stood, feeling resolute. She didn't care to look at the clock, though she knew it was going to become an indecent hour if she didn't didn't hurry.
She stood from her bed with renewed energy, and feeling determined. She then rushed to her bag and retrieved Taichi's karuta cards. The feeling of them in her hand gave her an extra boost of confidence, and Arata's advice was her support. She grabbed her keys and her phone, and she took off, narrowly missing colliding with her sister as she and her mom were opening the door.
"Chihaya?!" Chitose blinked in surprise, watching Chihaya run past her, and yelled after her, "Where are you going at this hour?!"
"I'm going to get Taichi back!"
Her family stared after her, clearly confused.
I can do this, Chihaya fiercely told herself in her concentrated run.
She was so focused, that she barely noticed the vibration of her phone in her pocket with a new e-mail. As she neared Taichi's house, she took out her phone and saw she received an e-mail from Arata. It read:
And afterward, don't say word. Not a single word, and it may be the toughest part, but it will be what alters your world.
Chihaya blinked at the message, not understanding. What did he mean by that? Now she wasn't able to say anything to Taichi at all? But she had so many questions for him! How was she supposed to go the whole night about knowing any of the answers? Even Arata didn't answer her questions!
She took a breath, focusing on Arata's advice again. I can do this.
She walked up to Taichi's house and before she could hesitate, she rang the doorbell.
There were a few moments that lasted an eternity between the doorbell and the door opening, and the silhouette before Chihaya was the first of her battles.
Mrs. Pressure, Taichi's mom, stood there, looking furious. "What are you doing?" She hissed, "Do you know what time it is?"
"Mrs. Mashima!" Chihaya bowed heavily, "I would please like to see Taichi!"
"Go home!" The door shut.
Chihaya stood again and bit her bottom lip in aggravation. She rang the doorbell again.
Mrs. Mashima swung it open, "Go home, or I'll call the police to kick you off the property!"
Chihaya bowed heavily again, "Please, Mrs. Mashima, I would like to see Taichi!"
The door shut in her face again.
Chihaya would not be bested by Mrs. Pressure. This was just a time consuming but easy karuta battle. She rang the doorbell again.
She heard a voice from inside which sounded like Taichi's sister, "Mom? Who's at the door?"
Chihaya rang the doorbell again, and she heard Taichi's mother hissing to not answer it, but after a moment, the door opened, and Chihaya was faced with opponent #2.
Chihaya bowed heavily and said, "I would please like to see Taichi!"
"Oh, you." Taichi's sister's eyelids lowered. "You're the karuta freak."
Mrs. Mashima called out from the house, "That's it, I'm calling the police."
In defiance, Chihaya stood, and looking past Taichi's sister, she pressed on the doorbell three more times just to make it apparent that she wasn't going anywhere.
That seemed to upset the entire Mashima household, but Chihaya didn't care. She yelled inside, "TAICHI!"
There was commotion, and the sound of Taichi's mother yelling, and Taichi's voice coming down the stairs. Chihaya couldn't make it out because Taichi's sister was telling her something about getting lost, and Taichi didn't want to see her. Chihaya didn't care, and yelled out "Taichi!" again into the house.
Taichi's sister was pulled aside and suddenly Taichi stood in the doorway, completely livid.
"Are you insane?" Taichi grabbed some slippers and stepped outside, shutting the front door behind him. "What the hell do you want?!"
Chihaya shouted with vehemence and tight fists, "I broke up with Arata!"
Taichi stopped, and looked at her incredulously. Whatever words he had prepared for her were lost with the wind.
Taichi opened his mouth, and then swallowed, but almost just as soon, his eyebrows turned down and he looked like he was going to say something again, but Chihaya spoke first, and her words were strong and confident.
"I love you!"
He froze, his eyes wide, his face an open book. His mouth was slightly ajar, and his breath was hitched.
Don't speak! Chihaya had to remind herself, Don't speak, don't speak, don't speak.
The hard look in Taichi's eyes vanished as confusion took over. He quickly inhaled, and held in his breath, his eyes searching hers as his lip started to tremble. Soon, his entire body was trembling as his jaw dropped more and his eyes lidded, filling with tears.
He inhaled sharply again, and his trembling arms suddenly shot out and grabbed her, and then pulled her toward him and into an earth-shattering embrace.
Chihaya's eyes were wide against his chest as she realized what was happening. He was trembling, his breath hitching as he shook against her. Her arms tightened around him without her even realizing what she was doing. He was so warm. He was there. He was in her arms. It felt so good, so natural, so welcome. She was hugging her best friend in the universe, and she didn't want to let go. It was Taichi!
Her eyes watered. She got Taichi back. She really got Taichi back!
Wordlessly, her breath started to hitch like his, and her tears began to fall again, but this time, her tears weren't for sadness. She didn't know what it was for, but she felt so incredibly emotional, and so relieved, and so happy. This feeling was the most wonderful feeling in the universe, and she never realized she had it with him until she lost it and re-found it.
She cried into his chest, holding him tight, feeling his body quake, until she realized he was crying, too. And then time, itself, stopped.
Her eyes went wide against him. Taichi was crying. Taichi… he was hurting, too. Her heart ached for him, and she wished she could shoulder all of the burden. She never wanted to make him cry again. Never, ever. She would never hurt him. She would never lose him.
"Chihaya…" Taichi breathed into her hair. His hands gently ran up and down her back in their embrace before continuing, "What I wanted to tell you… at the Tatsuta river…"
Chihaya pulled back, looking him in the eyes. His hands were still on her back, and his tears were left unwiped. In that moment, they were both a mess, but the look in his eyes, and the look in her eyes connected them in a way that made everything absolutely beautiful.
She already knew what he was going to say, before he said it… because at that moment, impassioned gods had never seen the gold that lay in Taichi's eyes. But she did. She saw him.
And when he kissed her, the world shifted.
And when she returned his kiss, the whole world loved like she loved.
… And when the police showed up, responding to Mrs. Pressure's call, it was a long night of explanation…